Lakers look to dust off the funk to finish season strong

For better or for worst, the Los Angeles Lakers are not the team they were a year ago. As everybody knows by now, the Lakers dominated the league, posting a 52-19 record in the regular season and running through every team they faced in the postseason on their way to winning the NBA title.

Despite losing perhaps the greatest icon (Kobe Bryant) in team history to an unspeakable tragedy and having to play through the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lakers prevailed against the odds.

After spending his first season with the Lakers bumped from the playoffs, LeBron James came back unleashed in his second year to guide the franchise to its 17th NBA title. A possible repeat became the calling card, but thus far this season, the Lakers have hit a bit of a rough patch and don’t look nearly as dominant as they did last season.

One reason why the Lakers don’t look as ferocious is having All-Star forward Anthony Davis sidelined with a host of injuries this season. That’s not a good sign. As Davis looks to recover from a calf strain and tendinosis in his right Achilles, his teammates are forced to preserve the deck and keep the ship tight until he gets back.

With the season at its midway point, the return of a fully healthy Davis could be another couple of weeks. This means all the players that Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka has brought in during the offseason, have to increase their productivity on the court. The Lakers will have a tough time getting through the Western Conference maze of great teams if they don’t.

Lebon James scored 23 points and passed out 12 assists to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a 120-94 win against the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on Wednesday, November 13, 2019. Kyle Kuzma added 22 points for the Lakers, while center JaVale McGee contributed 18 points and 17 rebounds in the win. Golden State was paced by D’Angelo Russell, who poured in 21 points for the Warriors. Photo by Mark Hammond for News4usonline

The Utah Jazz are playing lights out. The Los Angeles Clippers aren’t going to fade into the night easily. It’s a matter of time before the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks catch fire. The Phoenix Suns can’t be slept on. And there’s no telling what Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors will do.

With a semi-break because of NBA All-Star Weekend, the Lakers played 37 games through the first half of the season. They recorded a 24-13 mark, good enough for third place in the Western Conference and a couple of games out of first place. The problem with the Lakers is not their record; it’s what they have done lately.

In their 10 games before the league’s official break, the Lakers claimed an unceremonious 3-7 mark. That’s not impressive at all. The Lakers didn’t lose their 13th game last season until Game No. 58 had been played. But there is a caveat to all of this. Lakers coach Frank Vogel is not sounding the alarm bells about where and how the team is playing.

A turnover in roster personnel usually takes time for players to get the gist of playing together, Vogel said.

“I’m very confident in what we can accomplish this year,” Vogel said after the Lakers had dropped their 13th game of the season, a 123-120 road loss to the Sacramento Kings on March 3. “This season is a marathon. It’s about looking at a lot of different combinations, integrating new players and building habits that are going to win for you in the playoffs. Whether you’re winning or losing, you have a growth mindset. So, I’m not concerned with the recent losses. You know, our guys are competing well. We’re undermanned and guys are getting more opportunities. And those guys that are getting opportunities are growing in our system.”

Charlotte Hornets vs Los Angeles Lakers game at Staples Center. (Photo by Jevone Moore)

To try to get the Lakers back in championship mode, Pelinka didn’t mess around in the offseason. He really didn’t have a choice. It would be a short one. Just two months after winning the championship, the Lakers were tipping off the NBA’s 2020-21 season at STAPLES Center.

Considering the Lakers had won the NBA title in a five-game series wrap-up against the Miami Heat back on Oct. 11 and would be back on the court for an official preseason game against the Clippers two months later, Pelinka had little time to get stuff done.

Getting stuff done included getting LeBron James and Davis to re-sign. Pelinka also needed to lock up swingman Kyle Kuzma. Pelinka answered the bell. Kuzma signed off on a multi-year contract extension with the team.

“It is especially gratifying for our Lakers franchise to draft, develop and now sign one of our own to a contract extension,” said Pelinka. “Kyle has shown tremendous growth over the last three years and played a crucial role on last season’s championship team. Kyle has been a terrific member of the Lakers community and we are all very excited about his continued future with us.”

The month of November was a hectic one for Pelinka and the Lakers. There was a hole in the roster that needed to be filled. Quick. The players that were critical in the Lakers’ championship run last season vacated the scene for greener pastures-monetarily or for more playing time. This forced Pelinka to reach into his bag of wheeling and dealing.

So a month before the current NBA season got going, Pelinka and the Lakers signed veteran and well-traveled center Marc Gasol, perimeter specialist Wesley Matthews, the inside force that is known as Montrezl Harrell, and super-versatile guard Dennis Schroder. In the meantime, the banjo music started playing for the players who hurriedly left Tinsel Town for small market appreciation.

Los Angeles Lakers traded center JaVale McGee to make room for Marc Gasol. Photo by Mark Hammond for News4usonline

Center JaVale McGee is in Cleveland, masquerading in anonymity for the Cavaliers, LeBron’s old team. Dwight Howard took his talents to Philadelphia (76ers) to back up Joel Embiid. And then there is guard Rajon Rondo, now playing on his last legs with the Atlanta Hawks. So what was Pelinka to do in filling in the gap for these departed players?

This year’s squad looks a whole different than last season’s Lakers team. Last season, the Lakers could rely on the length of their roster to foster defensive intimidation on their opponents. It’s a little different this season. Pelinka and the Lakers snatched Harrell from the Clippers once the reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year hit free agency.

After spending three years with the other team across the city, Harrell has brought his same hard-charging and intimidating ways to the Purple and Gold. Harrell’s rebounding (6.4) and scoring (13.8 points per game) have dipped from last year’s breakout season, and that is a concern as the team moves on to the second of the season.

In his final year with the Clippers, Harrell averaged over 18 points and 7 rebounds a game. If the Lakers are to repeat as NBA champions, they are going to need Harrell to step up his level of play to the season he had in the previous year. But make no doubt about Harrell’s upside. His physical presence gives James and Anthony Davis a real serious backup plan to work with.

As a team, Harrell said he thought the Lakers played well in the first half of the season, but improvement can be expected.

“Good first half of the season,” Harrell said. “You know, we played through the ups and downs, through the different adversity, from COVID to injuries to just learning a whole new team, man. I think we got a lot more growing to do, and I think we’re going to be able to do that. This break is a much-needed one and I think the guys are going to utilize it and we’re going to come back prepared and finish off the rest of the season.”

Like Harrell, Schroder has seen his numbers go down as well. In his eighth season in the league, Schroder averaged 18 points a game last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. This year, Vogel has seen Schroder put up nearly 15 points a game. The numbers are not bad. But they’re not good, either.

With the Lakers two biggest pickups dropping on their scoring average, that leaves James to have to carry the offensive workload. That could be a problem in the second half of the season, especially with the timetable of a Davis return from injury up in the air.

Featured image: Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) has been the NBA’s leading voice on social activism regarding the police officer-involved shooting deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. James is pictured here in a regular season game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Pelicans. File Photo/Sammy Saludo for News4usonline

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